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Water-wise gardening crucial to successful planting

African daisies are an annual that tend to do well in drier conditions. Submitted photo1 / 2
Poppies need little water after blooming. Submitted photo2 / 2

While visiting family in California, we enjoyed unseasonable summerlike weather for some time. It had not rained there for the entire rainy season, which begins in late fall, and last year was dry, too. A state of drought has been declared, and water restrictions are in effect.

Finally, in February the rains began and people were celebrating. However, the reservoirs are extremely low, and the rationing continues.

Droughts of months or years in which a region gets less than the normal precipitation can occur at any time, but in the East and Midwest adequate rain usually returns. The West is in a permanent state of inadequate precipitation. Populous areas must rely on pipelines and canals from reservoirs fed by mountain streams.

The amount of moisture that nature provides varies considerably across the nation. The western half of the United States is predominately arid, and most of the precipitation occurs between late fall and late spring. Generally, the eastern half has plentiful water, but even in this area several dry years may occur. The dividing line runs through the middle of North Dakota so that the Red River Valley is in the wet zone. The average precipitation in West Fargo is about 20 inches.

Water may be the most crucial element in gardening. Sunset’s ‘Waterwise Gardening’ book suggests seven basic principles to conserve water. These are valuable even for those of us in non-arid regions.

Plan and design to use water as efficiently as possible. Zone plants with all of the big water users together and those that prefer light water in another area. Vegetable and annual flower gardens are high water users as well as some perennials, such as Astilbe. The south and the west sides of a building have the greatest water loss so plan to put your least thirsty plants there. Place moderate-use plants near downspouts and faucets.

Lawns require four times as much water as anything else, so try to limit turf area. Use alternatives such as ground cover plants, low shrubs and hedges. Hardscape areas with materials that allow rain to penetrate through. Wood decks, bricks and pavers set in sand, crushed rock, gravel, bark and wood chips are attractive and cool the soil, reducing evaporation.

Efficiently irrigate with a well-planned watering system. Underground sprinklers and drip irrigation using timers are the most efficient systems.

Improve the soil. Incorporate organic matter to help hold moisture in the soil. In clay soils decaying matter wedges between soil particles opening up the earth, so that air, water and roots can penetrate easier. In vegetable and annual flower gardens, mulch should be incorporated into the soil each year. In permanent plantings, add mulch to the surface yearly.

Use mulches to reduce moisture loss. Spread a 1- to 4-inch layer of loose-textured organic material once the outside temperature has warmed up. This will slow the rate of evaporation and keep the soil cool. If raw (not composted) materials are used, add nitrogen fertilizer.

Maintain the garden in a way that does not waste water. Water plants when they need it and not by the clock. Do it in the morning and when the air is quiet so the wind and hot sun do not evaporate the water. Weeds consume water, so get rid of them and mulch to keep them from coming back.

Use plants that require limited water to survive and flourish. Some shrubs and trees are quite drought-tolerant once they are established (usually in about a year). Examples are Ash, Oak, Black Walnut, Sumac and Amur Maple trees and Potentilla, Juniper, Yew, and Viburnum “Mohican” shrubs. Many perennials do well during dry spells, including Iris, Liatris, Purple Coneflowers, Penstemon, Rudbeckia, Red Hot Poker, Coreopsis, Baptisia, Gaillardia, Helianthus, Flax, Sedum, and Statice. Plants with gray leaves like Cerstium, Russian Sage, Artemisia, and Lambs Ears are a tip-off that they like dry conditions. Oriental Poppy needs little water after blooming as it dies back to the ground. Some annuals that keep going when it is dry are African Daisy, Salvia, Alyssum, Lantana, Gaura, Four O’clock, Morning Glory, Verbena, Gazania and Fountain Grass. Hibiscus and Asparagus Fern do well in containers.

Even though extended dry spells are infrequent in our area, it seems that almost every summer we have a period where our lawns turn brown and we may only water on even or odd days of the week. Some gardeners take vacations in the summer or spend a lot of time at the lake. All these are reasons to consider some water-wise techniques.

Breitling is a longtime West Fargo resident and avid gardener always in search of new ideas.